Signs of the Times in Rural America

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by Clell G. Ballard
With all that area available (note the vast space in the background) it is amazing that both town “deposit” locations were close together.

In what now seems a long time ago, first on the radio and later on television, there was a program named Truth or Consequences. Contestants from the audience were required to interpret what individuals who worked in specific occupations were saying when they made a one-sentence statement in that occupation’s unique jargon. If they could, they received a cash prize. If they couldn’t (as usually was the case), they had to suffer the consequences and had to perform some unusual and often humorous activity that the audience would enjoy seeing.

To advertise the nationwide program, the producers offered a sizable amount of money to any community that would change its name to Truth or Consequences. A small town in New Mexico did just that and still operates under that name today. The farmer who provided me with my first job driving a tractor retired there.

I’ve spent a good share of my life doing farm work. Back in the 1980s, during long hours spent in the field, I often tried to figure out what a farmer’s one-line statement about his operation would be that would be hard for the average person to decipher.

Based on my experience raising hay and grain, here is what I came up with: “After a major effort to maintain neat windrows, near sundown we picked it up and shut it down so early morning preparations could be made.” A farm employee might utter that statement without a second thought. I’m sure you readers understand immediately but just in case you don’t (and if you were on the program, you would have to suffer the consequences), the translation will be given at the end of this article.

Learning the local lingo

Farmers and others who live in rural America often have unique concepts and use words and phrases that may not be in the lexicon of most Americans or understood by them. This article is about a few signs in our rural part of the country that urban dwellers wouldn’t see where they live. Surely you have seen many more like these.

These signs convey a message but actually say more than meets the eye. They signal a way of life. A television network formed in 2000 that claims to be “America’s most important rural network.” As interesting as that claim is, don’t let it fool you. It is a business just like any other that has chosen to aim itself toward non-metropolitan viewers. (Note the city where its headquarters is located.)

A word to the wise: If you want to know what rural life is about, you just about have to spend time in the country. Like learning a foreign language, you can’t become fluent in it until you spend time in that language area. For those of you who have never had that opportunity, Farm Collector is a great resource that immerses you a little with every issue.

Translating the message

As promised, the agricultural statement I thought the Truth or Consequences program could use to stump contestants might come from a hay and grain growing area like ours.

Here is the translation: “After trying to maintain neat windrows,” explains that a machine known as a swather was cutting a hay crop. Windrows result from the machine cutting a wide swath of alfalfa (elsewhere, it could be some kind of grass) and mechanically leaving it neatly lined up on the ground in windrows so a hay baler could pick it up and compact it into bales. Field conditions sometimes made that a difficult process.

“… Near sundown we picked it up and shut it down” refers to the fact that haying jobs regularly lasted from early morning until late in the day. A swather is designed with a header (traditionally, a platform about 16 feet wide with a sickle bar running at ground level to cut the crop and a large reel that pushes the hay against the sickle. Modern models have rotary cutters that do not need a reel).

That platform can be raised hydraulically when not actually cutting hay and would be in the “up” position when traveling back to where the swather would be parked overnight. The actual cutting mechanism would be “shut down” while the machine is moving back to its parking spot.

“… So early morning  preparations could be made” refers to every morning’s activities, when the machine is fueled, mechanical inspections are made and lubrication is performed as needed. In our case, that routine activity was conducted early, so we could start in the field at 7 a.m

It used to be that almost everyone had a parent, grandparent or some relative who lived on a farm, used to live on a farm or had some connection to rural America. In the last couple of decades, that is less often true. 

Today, less than 2 percent of our population has any involvement with agriculture. In recent years, farming has become much more complex and its occupational jargon is thus much more difficult to understand. I’m sure even those of us who once understood everything farm folks meant when discussing regular activities would find ourselves confused today. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at

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